Experience the world of flowers and their symbolism through ten pieces of art from the museum's collections. From Antiquity to the 20th century, as civilizations progressed, discover the importance of flowers as endless sources of inspiration for artists. The audio tracks stored on the museum's audio guide expand on the work in the gallery.

Stele dedicated to Osiris and to the gods of Abydos by the standard bearer of King Aakheperou-men-sou-iam
Egypt; Reign of Amenhotep II (c. 1450–25 BC); Polychrome limestone.

The lotus appears in its different states—stem, bud and flower—on this funerary stele.

In the upper section, the dead man, sat with his wife, breathes in the flower's sweet smell that holds the promise of the vitality to be found in the afterlife.

By their sides and in the lower section, their daughters bring the flowers' buds to their nostrils.

The lotus is used both as an elegant decoration for ladies' wigs and on vases placed under the offering table.

These lotuses are actually waterlilies: the blue variety (Nymphaea caerulea) blooms with the day's first gleams of light, whilst the white one (Nymphaea lotus) blossoms at night.

The real lotus (Nelumbo lotus) was only introduced to Egypt when the Persians arrived towards the end of the 6th century.

The blue lotus, with its golden yellow stamens, is a symbol of life and rebirth. According to certain religious traditions it is said to have been the first flower, and the morning sun appeared in it above the waters at the beginning of the world.

For ancient Egyptians, its blooming symbolized the birth of the divine being. This is why it often features in votive and funerary scenes.

Panel with the vase of flowers
Damascus, Syria; Late 16th or early 17th century; Siliceous ceramic, decoration painted on siliceous engobe and beneath a transparent glaze.

A lush, floral composition adorns the central field of this ceramic panel, which is bordered by a braid with scroll embellishments.

Several varieties of flower spring from a vase with interwoven motifs, which rise and fall; a pattern that spreads across the entire surface.

Whilst some are botanically accurate and identifiable—such as the iris, the carnation, or the love-in-a-mist—others, which are more stylized and sometimes composites of different plants, are purely decorative.

The abundance of plants contrasts with the color palette, which is limited to four shades: cobalt blue, almond green, eggplant purple, and turquoise blue.

This component of wall decoration, made by a ceramic workshop in Damascus, Syria—under Ottoman rule at that time—is a work of art that invites genuine contemplation.

In Islamic art, abundant nature symbolizes life and alludes to the garden of Paradise, which Muslims strive towards. The word "paradise," originally Persian before entering the Greek language, means "enclosed space" and harks back to the lush gardens of Antiquity.

Tetradrachms from Rhodes (reverse side)
Rhodes, Caria, Greece; Circa 230–188 BC; Silver.

This silver tetradrachm, struck on the island of Rhodes circa 230–188 BC, is a fine example of ancient Greek currency.

On the reverse side, a three-petal stylized rose occupies the central field, while a flower bud grows on a stem to the right.

The Greek name of the island is inscribed above the flower: "rodion", meaning "rose."

On the left, linked to this symbol of the island, a ship's prow acts as a reminder of the maritime role played by Rhodes.

The name of the magistrate in charge of coinage for the city at that time—"Ameinas"—appears under the flower cluster.

According to legend, the sea nymph Rhode, one of the daughters of Poseidon, is responsible for the creation of Rhodes.

Helios, the Greek god of the sun, dazzled by this beauty arising from the waters, made her his wife and so became the island's protector. Helios is also depicted on the right of this coin.

The rose is central to ancient Greek mythology. It was created by Chloris. Aphrodite was said to have given it its beauty and Dionysus its intoxicating scent.

The Annunciation
Jacquelin of Montluçon; around 1496-97; Oil on walnut wood.

This Annunciation, an episode taken from the Gospel according to Saint Luke, shows the angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary.

In a Renaissance-style interior, the angel Gabriel is in the presence of the Father and the dove of the Holy Spirit. He interrupts the young woman while she is reading to announce that she will carry the baby Jesus.

In the foreground, the artist carefully depicts a bouquet that includes roses from Provins, two-tone pansies, a daisy, and blue columbines.

These flowers, portrayed in minute detail by the painter, convey a symbolic message. The columbine, linked to the holy spirit by the shape of its five petals evoking five doves, could depict the pain of the Virgin.

The daisy, which blooms at Easter and prefigures the Passion of Christ, symbolizes the beauty of Mary and her love that triumphs over all.

The pansy, the discrete flower of the undergrowth, evokes humility.

Mary's dress is adorned with golden thistles. In the Christian tradition, the thistle symbolizes the pain of Christ and his mother, but also their virtue, protected by its prickles. According to a medieval legend, the white mottling on the milk thistle leaves were formed from drops of the Virgin's milk.

Portrait of woman in flora
Anonymous; Rome; First half of the 17th Century; Oil on canvas.

A young woman, adorned with flowers, is sat, apparently lost in her daydreams.

In the background, a carefully landscaped garden echoes the exuberance of the surrounding plants.

Red peonies, flamed tulips, French roses, white lilies, blue ipomoea, strawberries, and artichokes spring from a basket, a vase, and a large dish placed on a seat.

This arrangement evokes the vitality of nature and refers to the figure of the ancient goddess Flora, companion of the west wind Zephyr.

Their union is symbolized by the carnation that the young woman gently holds in her left hand.

In this work, which is equal parts portrait, still life, and landscape, the concern for both botanical accuracy and the symbolic significance of flowers are intimately linked.

So, the petals scattered on the ground evoke the passage of time and the vanity of terrestrial pleasures.

The carnation—a symbol of sincere love and the promise of marriage—has been one of the most frequently depicted flowers in portraits of young fiancés since the renaissance.

Offering to the Virgin
Simon Saint Jean; 1842; Oil on canvas.

The painter Simon Saint Jean lived in Lyon at the time when the city became one of the largest European centers of horticulture, excelling in the production and the creation of roses.

The flower forms part of this opulent crown, also adorned with tulips, poppies, ipomoea and, tuberose.

The artist succeeds in rendering the most subtle variations of color and texture.

The pale hues of the roses create a luminous halo that highlights the carved figure of the Virgin and Child.

The naturalistic aspect of this work—with the greatest possible botanical accuracy— shows the influence of the Flemish and Dutch flower painters of the previous centuries.

Simon Saint Jean was a central figure in the Lyon school of flower painting; he taught there and was its head for many years. He also produced drawings for the silk workshops, alongside his artistic production.

In the Christian tradition, the Virgin Mary, also known as the "rose without thorns," is most often depicted surrounded by white roses of clear hues, a symbol of her purity and chastity. The Christ child sometimes holds a red rose in his hand, a symbol of the Passion.

Vase of roses
Cornelis van Spaendonck; 1806; Oil on canvas.

The Dutchman Cornelis van Spaendonck was around twenty years old when he settled in Paris, the new center of flower painting since the mid-18th Century.

Artistic director of the royal manufacturer in Sèvres from 1785 to 1800, he created many porcelain designs for the decoration of noble and royal houses.

This bouquet of several varieties of roses in a precious vase of dark stone was placed on a marble entablature.

While vermilion and crimson roses frame the composition, a white rose and a pale pink centifolia rose—also called "rose of the painters"—focus the effects of light.

The centifolia rose also crowns the bouquet and the painting shows it at each stage of its life cycle: in bud, partly bloomed, and fully developed.

Wildflower
Louis Janmot; 1845; Oil on wood.

In order to undertake this idealized portrait, inspired by the art of the Italian Renaissance, Louis Janmot would have used a young woman from his circle of acquaintances as his model and painted her on the terrace of his studio, facing the Alps.

Crowned with bindweeds,...

a bouquet of wildflowers—daisies, cornflowers, buttercups, poppies—in each hand,...


she is seated in front of a blossoming wild rose and other wild plants.

The care given to the detailed portrayal of these flowers echoes the Lyon tradition of flower painting, even if the artist has favored more uncultivated species here.

This feminine figure could be interpreted as an evocation of the goddess Flora, in this image of union with nature illustrated by the metaphorical character of its title.

Echoing the name of the painting, these wildflowers could allude to the freshness of youth and its ephemeral character, just like the butterflies the young woman appears to be gazing at.

Flowers on a fireplace at Les Clayes
Édouard Vuillard; Around 1932-1935; Tempera on paper mounted on canvas.

The imposing wilting peonies were laid out on a chimney, in front of a mirror.

Painted with brisk brush strokes in a matte medium, their deep red color draws the eye and contrasts with the pale blue and bright yellow that dominate the work.

Here, Édouard Vuillard offers a free reinterpretation of the bouquet of painted flowers.

However, he is less interested in the bouquet itself than in the way its crazy stems allow him to shake up the composition, whilst the rectilinear shapes of the chimney, the mirror and the bay window it reflects all give the piece rhythm.

The artist chooses to open the bay window onto a garden flooded with light, the real subject of the painting.

The work thus goes beyond the representation of a simple interior scene and is fully part of his research on the question of light and colors, initiated around 1900.

Credits: Story

Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon
Course design: Véronique Moreno-Lourtau - cultural service.
Directed by: Mathilde Hospital - communication department.
Photos in gigapixels: © Gilles Alonso - contact@gillesalonso.com
Photos: © MBA Lyon - Alain Basset, Stéphane Degroisse, Mathilde Hospital

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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